We have just completed the season of preparing for the birth of Jesus. Now we prepare to live with the consequences of His coming into our human family.
For many people this season of holidaying has much to do with family gatherings and remembrances of past family-times. We gather at the Eucharist to celebrate His giving of His Life for our being the Holy Family of the Church. We can pray with the realization that we have received life from our parents as we receive also our lives from the family-making God. There is no perfect family, nor is there a perfect Church. We experience and pray with the holiness of the imperfect world and persons of our families and the family of humankind.
Our First Reading for this liturgy contains verses reflective of a way of holiness within the Jewish family. Relating with parents is a way of relating with God. Parenthood is a reflection of God’s authority. Children are taught to see God’s presence in the parental ways within the family.
These verses are aimed at how children are to relate with their parents as a way of how they are to relate with the authority and love of God. Children will atone for sins and become rich and live a long time as a result of living the family-way. The nation of Israel depended on the family solidity for the solidity of the nation. The structure of the nation was as a family under the protective power of the parental God. The individual families were to live this way as well.
Bethlehem is a dangerous place! It was for Mary and Joseph for many reasons and is now, for us as we pray there. When seen beyond the Hallmark-pretty stable, we are confronted with considering the events which have happened and continue happening in our own families’ lives. Next Sunday we will recall the arrival and liturgy the Magi experienced at the stable. In today’s reading of the Gospel, the Magi are leaving, even before we celebrate their arrival - it has to be this way liturgically - so go with it as one more family interruption.
Last Tuesday we went with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the shepherds appeared after the angels appeared. If we prayed deeply with those events we did bump into the inconveniences of the stable and being left out in the cold. Birth is hard enough. Joseph met his insufficiency as a provident father. Animals were the attending physicians, and Mary met the mystery of her motherhood ponderingly.
This celebration of the Holy Family presents us with one more inconvenience, two more dreams and the three of them rising trustingly and heading off to “God-knows where.” Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes often that Jesus is the One Who fulfills the messianic prophesies within the Jewish scriptures. Joseph and Mary go with the flow of God’s ways, because Bethlehem has become even more dangerous for their Child.
Parents pass on to their children many things, many ways of looking at life, at themselves, at others. More basically, parents give to their children their humanity and how to live with that complexity and mystery. Mary gave Jesus His human body and nature. Our parents struggled with theirs and tried to assist us in our wrestling with our own humanity - not an easy task.
Perhaps what is “holy” about our family experiences is how we accept in our human way the inconveniences, the interruptions, and the poverty of our insufficiencies, the fears and worries, the “dangers” of our Bethlehem’s.
Dreams are part of our human experience, but when dreams become expectations, we increase the possibilities of danger. Mary had a dream-like visit with royal implications and promises. Her hopes would have been accelerated by her visiting Elizabeth and finding out that promises are being kept. As she headed for Bethlehem she would have increased expectations that God would bring about even more fulfillings of promises.
Joseph had a dream to take Mary as his wife. Bethlehem challenged his trust in the dream and in himself. Expectations do grow into demands and rights. Perhaps this is where “dysfunctional” replaces “holy” when referring to “family”. Straw and manger replace dreams and angel’s greetings. Journey and exile replace home and neighbors. They were holy as they were invited to flow with the go of God.
Earlier this month, here in our city of Omaha, a wife and husband were journeying through a local shopping mall with dreams and expectations of Christmas. A few days later, the wife and her family journeyed down the aisle of our campus church accompanying her husband to the Mass of Christian Burial. He had been shot and killed while trying to stop a very sick young man from his killing spree. Their lives and all of our lives here were interrupted, visited by the unexplainable. There they were - their entire family together in church praying for forgiveness, even for the killer. Dreams and hopes were present, trust accompanied these fragile, but strong women and men, young and old who were all preparing to visit Bethlehem soon. Their Christmases are forever repictured from a Hallmark-perfect glossy, to a graceful presentation of tears as they present, not gold and incense, but their questions, doubts and the ultimate “let it be done” which echo the Life-Giving prayer of Mary. The “holy” of their family was not that they were in church. It was their living with the humanity passed on to them as a gift from God. It continues to be in how they left church and live with dreams, hopes and tears all together.
“Our God has appeared on earth, and lived among men.” Bar. 3-38
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